Two inches. That’s the length the new owners of Krabloonik added to the chains that tether the Snowmass institution’s sled dogs to their shelters. While it may sound insignificant, the change means the dogs can now touch noses and interact, moving Krabloonik a step closer to untethering the dogs altogether.
The longer chains are just one of many dog-friendly shifts introduced by new owners Danny and Gina Phillips since taking over from Krabloonik’s embattled longtime proprietor, Dan MacEachen, last winter. The biggest of those shifts, says Danny, is love: “The dogs are loved by the guides, by the kids [the Phillipses have three, ages sixteen, nine, and seven]. ... There’s compassion.”
Gina likens the new approach to changes that have occurred in human parenting. “The old way was, ‘Do it because I said so,’” she says. “The new way is, ‘I need you to do this. How do we get to that point together?’” In other words, using fear as a motivator has given way to positive reinforcement. Whereas a relationship between a musher and the dogs used to be intentionally distant, reflecting a belief that dogs wouldn’t work hard if they were spoiled, “now it’s about taking the time to get to know them, connecting with them as another being,” says Danny. “There are naturally timid dogs. My job is to figure out why they’re scared of the world.”
Compared to the old digs, Krabloonik’s new canine confines are pretty plush. The old doghouses were traditional plywood with no bedding. Now they’re more weather-resistant plastic with five inches of organic (no allergens) straw. As before, the dogs receive their big feeding at bedtime—it warms them through the night—but now they get snacks every couple of hours, too, including a homemade doggie energy bar made of broth, fat, and mush.
Danny, who’s forty-one, grew up in northern Idaho, came to Aspen in 1999 to ski-bum, and decided to dedicate a year to learning to dogsled. He did a rookie season at Krabloonik, was instantly hooked, then landed a job with an Iditarod racer in Glenwood Springs and spent four years learning science, feeding, and massage. He and Gina started their own kennel back in Idaho in 2006, working mostly with at-risk youth. But after running a dogsledding outfit in Durango, the couple found they missed the Roaring Fork Valley and made their way back. When MacEachen had his whole staff walk out in late 2013, Danny volunteered to assist. “The dogs needed help,” he says. “That’s how the mushing community works.”
With 210 dogs, Krabloonik is the largest kennel in the Lower 48, one of only four of its size in the world. The Phillipses plan to reduce that size—doing so will allow them to continue to make their operation more progressive—and they will transition from race dogs to tour dogs, meaning bigger, fuller huskies. That breed will add one more idyllic element to an experience that already borders on the magical: sitting huddled in a sled, harnessing the power of man’s best friend to take a thrill ride through a forested winter wonderland.
“When it snows,” Gina says, “we share that world.”